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Margaret Thatcher: was it all about Europe?

Margaret Thatcher was a major political figure of the end of the Cold War era, who is still surrounded by much controversy today. There are two main reasons for this: she openly pursued an alternative vision of Europe at a time when federalism was still the dominant discourse; and she called for the liberalisation of the Eastern bloc, rather than its disintegration.




  • Margaret Thatcher's surname and derivative words such as 'Thatcherism' can still cause clashes of views in debates on economic policies

  • Ronald Reagan called her “the best man in England”, whilst for her, he was “the second most important man in my life”

  • As Prime Minister her first move was to challenge the idea that European rules were non-negotiable


None of this was predictable at the beginning of her political career, nor at the beginning of her term in office, and certainly foreign policy was not her preferred sphere of action from the start.


Her surname and derivative words such as Thatcherism and Thatcherite, have entered the media, political and intellectual debates in Britain and elsewhere and can still cause clashes of views in debates on economic policies.


She read Friedrich Hayek as an undergraduate at Oxford and became very keen on the revival of his ideas and those of Milton Friedman in the 1970s and 80s. She also fully shared Hayek’s view that any form of compromise with socialism was wrong and dangerous.


Her economic views are known and associated with so-called Reaganomics, policies pursued by Ronald Reagan, President of the USA from 1981. The two not only shared economic views and anti-communist convictions: he called her “the best man in England”, whilst for her, he was “the second most important man in my life”.


Thatcher’s economic liberalism and anticommunism was also rooted in her family upbringing. She did not belong to the upper social strata of the Conservative party. Interestingly, neither did her predecessor, Edward Heath, or successor, John Major.


However, Thatcher’s lower middle class, middle England origins and grammar school education remained, almost visibly, at the core of her ethos throughout her political life. Her father was a grocer and a lay minister, holding a number of subsequent local offices in Grantham and ending his career as mayor of the town. Thatcher grew up living above the family shop, in a Methodist religious environment, characterized by a strong sense of duty. 

Thatcher was the first in her family to go to any university. She went to Oxford to study chemistry and later qualified as a barrister.


Her scientific training remained central to her way of thinking as a politician. She became actively involved with the Conservative party, becoming President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946.


Early on in her career, when in search of a safe seat, she experienced open discrimination from both men and women. Many considered her ambition to combine family commitments and a career as a Member of Parliament to be quite extravagant.


Thatcher never played the feminist card (“I owe nothing to women’s lib”) but by sheer perseverance managed to be finally elected to Parliament in 1959. As an MP, she suddenly found herself – a 35 year-old, good-looking woman – in an almost completely male environment.


She served in the shadow cabinet when the Conservatives were in opposition and was appointed Secretary of State for Education in the Heath government from 1970 to 1974. In 1975 she became the first woman to lead a major western political party and to serve as leader of the opposition, after challenging the leadership of her own party. Her political victory took many by surprise.


Thatcher became Prime Minister when the Conservatives regained a majority at the general election of 1979, after four years in opposition. She was appointed PM in the spring, following the so-called “winter of discontent”.


Coming to power at a time of collapsing public services, high inflation and a large budget deficit, she administered strong economic medicine to the country from the beginning – one result of which was high unemployment, remaining at over 3 million at the end of her first term.


She was re-elected with a landslide majority in 1983, having aggressively taken on the issue of the “rebate” at the European Council in Dublin, passed tough economic measures against industrial action at home, and surprised the world by reacting militarily to the invasion of the Falklands Island by Leopoldo Galtieri, the Argentinian dictator, in 1982.


Thatcher became known as an uncompromising partner in Europe, whose priorities were dictated by national interest; this was evident from the first confrontation with her partners regarding the rebate of the British contribution to the EC budget. 


At the beginning of her political career in the seventies, she had campaigned for the Common Market. In her rise to power she defeated Edward Heath, the most convinced and convincing architect of British Europeanism.


As Prime Minister her first move was to challenge the idea that European rules were non-negotiable and that European cooperation was mainly about reducing national power in favour of European institutions in Brussels.


It was the first step on a path that led her in the second half of the 1980s to distinguish between her partners’ vision of a Europe coinciding with the European Community, and her own, looking at a broader continental picture.


At home, her decision to regain her islands by deploying military power outside the NATO sphere, marked the overcoming of the memory of the Suez debacle in 1956, when French, Israeli and British troops invaded the canal zone in Egypt, and which was seared in the memories of the older generation of politicians. Incompetence, according to Thatcher, had caused the dramatic failure of that campaign, together with being let down by the US.


In 1982, she could rely on American technology and support, and on building high levels of trust within the special relationship – a reserve of trust which had to be drawn on heavily, but was not exhausted, when the following year Reagan invaded Grenada, a Commonwealth nation, without consulting Thatcher.


At the same time, Thatcher’s line in responding to the Argentinian attack – that British territories would always be defended – gained the support of the European Community partly in order to create a conciliatory mood around the budget issue.

1984 was a pivotal year for Thatcher: in March she embarked on a confrontation with Arthur Scargill, leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, who had called a national strike in response to proposed pit closures.


Thatcher won the battle, though at the cost of a year’s strike and much bitterness. In June 1985 at the Fontainebleau European Council, the PM won another long-term confrontation: this time with the EC on the rebate. On October 12th, while staying at the Grand Hotel in Brighton, Thatcher was the victim of a terrorist attack by the IRA. She came out of it unhurt but the blast killed 4 people and injured 31. In December she met Gorbachev for the first time.

All these events and others – such as the Westland affair, a quarrel over the fate of a helicopter company which, she later said, might have forced her resignation – left scars or opened windows of opportunities, both at home and in international relations.


They did not, however, prevent Thatcher from winning a third term at the 1987 general elections. In the second half of the 1980s, she faced the two greatest challenges of her political career, both coming from the international sphere: the extraordinary acceleration of change in East-West relations in the second half of the 1980s and a dramatic clash with ideas of political and monetary union in the Community.


On these two accounts Thatcher’s convictions were highly divisive and remain so. Her ideas had developed over the years and were now clearly spelled out. The key to understanding her European views is in the Bruges speech given on September 20th, 1988, when she made a passionate defence of national sovereignty and of a Europe bigger than the Community. 


Eutopia has published this most controversial but clearly presented talk on Europe. Its impact was long lasting: Thatcher denied that the Community could ever be the main expression of European identity because “Europe is not the creation of the Treaty of Rome. Nor is the European idea the property of any group or institution”.


She also argued against the centralisation of power and post-war social democratic consensus and in favour of free markets, free trade and European – turned Atlantic – liberal traditions and values. Her words inspired a powerful Eurosceptic movement and the Bruges Group itself, set up in February 1989.


The Bruges speech is important as part of a coherent design, though it is too often quoted in fragments. Numerous drafts went between the Foreign Office and 10 Downing Street, with the effect of partly watering down the tone of Thatcher’s defence of her alternative vision of Europe.


In the final text there is a remarkable passage that reflects her very strong wish to make possible the return-to-Europe of Eastern Europe, still controlled by the USSR.


Thatcher wanted to remind her audience of the existence of a broader Europe including all those countries that the Cold War had removed from their European roots and artificially positioned in the East: “We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain, people who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities”.


Thatcher saw Europe through the prism of the pre-1945 British anti-Nazi stance followed by victory in the war – a victory which came at a very high price: impoverishment and relative military and diplomatic decline. 


However the “price of victory” did not diminish but rather strengthened the sense of allegiance to the nation among Labour and Conservative politicians of Thatcher’s generation, and remained at the core of her vision throughout her political career.


As a result she openly rejected the continental vision of a derogation of national power to the Community, eventually leading to a federal structure, which originated from the Franco-German post-1945 “price of defeat” syndrome.


She envisaged an apparently self-liberating Eastern Europe, actually supported in the liberalisation process by the West via Ostpolitik and top-down East-West policies negotiated with Gorbachev.


The idea that Communist rule could collapse without causing Soviet intervention was unthinkable in Thatcher’s mind, as it was among practitioners and academics in the second half of the 1980s. The PM expected liberalisation to be achieved within the existing structure of international relations, leaving NATO and the Warsaw Pact standing as pillars of the security system.


This was not gut Euroscepticism. Thatcher built her counter-federalist vision on her personal, political and religious beliefs – the latter being a Protestant tradition that Britain and the Nordic countries still share, and that makes them “reluctant Europeans” with a strong pride in their own traditions of government, and their administration valued as “better than Europe”.


Thatcher's Bruges speech was given just two years after she had signed the 1986 Single European Act, opening the door to the single market. She saw no contradiction between pursuing economic liberalism in Europe and standing by her views of a Europe built on traditions pre-existing the EC.


But the late 1980s was no time for alternative visions of Europe: her Bruges speech set her against not only those in Europe like Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, who were already weary of her views, but also senior members of her own cabinet, including Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe and Chancellor Nigel Lawson. 


Thatcher’s approach to Europe can only be fully understood within the scenario of East/West relations in the 1980s. Her aim was to blend liberalisation and rapprochement with Eastern Europe. To this end, she supported Gorbachev and the existing Cold War security system while promoting political dialogue, economic integration and resisting mutual demilitarisation of the two blocks.


Not much of this aspect of the Thatcher/Gorbachev relationship is known outside academia. Only recently have first-hand sources revealed the complexity of the game played by the protagonists of the end of the Cold War in Europe. Thatcher was one of them, and together with Gorbachev she undervalued the risk of liberalisation opening a Pandora’s box in the Eastern block and USSR.


In particular, Thatcher never expected to see a clash between her enthusiasm for British Ostpolitik on one hand and the preservation of the Cold War order on the other. She also underestimated another potential clash: between her close relationships with Gorbachev and Reagan (who both believed that nuclear weapons were immoral and were determined to avoid a nuclear Armageddon at all costs), and her own uncompromising pro-nuclear position.   


Thatcher learned about the conversation between Reagan and Gorbachev in Reykjavik in October 1986, and how close they had come to agreeing the abolition of all nuclear weapons. She went to Washington to stop Reagan – with no success. 


This fundamental disagreement on the value and role of nuclear weapons was too deep to be mended. It marginalised Thatcher within the triangle of close political relations with Reagan and Gorbachev on security issues and in dealing with the acceleration of change in Europe at the end of the Cold War.


The gap widened further with Reagan’s successor, President George Bush senior, as Thatcher struggled first to stop, then to slow down German unification – which Bush backed.


Thatcher’s preferred outcome of a broader Europe that would re-open its gates to its Eastern partners and become the core of a top-down reassessment of East/West relations, turned out to be utopian. 


The reality was a bottom-up disintegration of Central/Eastern Europe, leading to a largely unpredicted, peaceful, but – in terms of the international order – devastating end to the Cold War. By the early post-Cold War era, Thatcher was isolated and perceived as totally out of touch with Europe and East-West relations. 


She resigned in 1990, after a leadership crisis within her party that saw growing resistance to her by many of her cabinet colleagues and in the parliamentary party. The coup de grace came from Geoffrey Howe, her former Chancellor and perennial punch bag, whose resignation speech was devastating in its quiet condemnation of her one-woman rule. 

A large part of Thatcher’s legacy is intertwined with the position of the UK in Europe, and the way in which the Cold War ended.


In dealing with European institutions she increasingly discarded half measures, prompting the growth of a Conservative recoil from the mechanisms and aims of the EU – especially that of "ever closer union" and the steady loss of national political power – a position mapped out clearly in her Bruges speech.  Euroscepticism, in its present form in the UK, owes most to her – and she has been vilified or celebrated for it over the years.


I have argued that her legacy goes far beyond her last few years when she grew increasingly hostile to the accelerating pace of change in Europe and became impervious to advice. She confronted Jacques Delors in an aggressive and uncompromising way in 1988, when he pushed for a social dimension to EU policy, and for monetary union – both of which were unacceptable to her.


Opposing German unification to the very end, when all other European partners had ceased to do so, tainted Thatcher’s reputation - almost cancelling out her previous enthusiastic contribution to British Ostpolitik and her ideas of Eastern liberalisation, so intensely discussed with Gorbachev.

On the future of the European Union, Thatcher’s legacy is often mentioned in connection with today’s debate on Brexit: a referendum, which might take place as early as June 2016, possibly sanctioning the exit of Britain from the EU. 


Thatcher and the British PM, David Cameron, differ sharply in style and approach when dealing with Brussels.


Thatcher’s uncompromising “nos” still echo in the centres of the European power – while Cameron moves smoothly, being neither a Europeanist nor a radical Eurosceptic but rather a moderate, pragmatic sceptic, increasingly in tune with a much less Euro-enthusiastic age.


Times were very different when, in the 1980s and 90s, the Community was developing at a very fast pace, with new policies and institutions being created and agreed. She placed herself against that, picking and choosing within the project, sharing the Single Market idea fully but rejecting the social/monetary dimension of the Union in the making.


She never, however, argued in favour of leaving the EU: whether or not she would have called a referendum is an open question. Certainly, she opposed that called by the Labour government in 1974.

Her most lasting effect on UK policy towards the EU was her policy of renegotiation of all European projects and decisions not agreeable to Britain, an approach that she has passed on to her successors at 10 Downing Street.


For the British, the untouchability of the acquis communautaire has no force or meaning: accustomed to a politics of pragmatic adjustments without a written constitution to constrain governments, for British administrations the relationship with the EU is a matter of endless change.

Today, Cameron is perfectly aware of the importance for Britain of EU membership, but must appease a significant section of his party that believes exit is the answer. In doing so, those in favour of leaving the EU may have misread Thatcher's previous positions, though there is no way of knowing if her hostility to ever closer union would have transformed into hostility to British membership. 


Cameron's way is trying to prevent exit by using the tactic of renegotiation – a deeper renegotiation than in the past. 


He targets core issues such as the inevitability of ‘ever closer union’, as well as the practice of extending immediate social and economic rights to non-British EU citizens living and working in the UK. He is also lobbying among European partners to give national parliaments veto power on unwanted EU directives.


He is demanding that non-Euro countries will not be involved in Eurozone bailouts – since the idea that all Member States will eventually join the Euro will be abandoned. If Cameron succeeds in his profound renegotiation of British membership, then British public opinion may think twice before choosing to leave the EU.


That could be a very Thatcherite outcome.


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